Sunday, March 9, 2014
I hear Republicans say that they don't always approve of what Gov. LePage says, but they like his actions.
To them it's a matter of packaging. The governor has solid policies, they say, but he undercuts them when he opens his mouth.
I tend to be just the opposite. I often like to hear what the governor has to say. I just don't like what he does.
When he said he wanted to blow up the building where I work, I had to laugh. But when he denied health care to 70,000 Mainers just because he felt like it, I was appalled.
I could live with him as a public speaker if he didn't keep himself so busy.
The governor's words and actions came together this past week with his radio address, in which he took credit for "welfare reform" that gives people the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
"This is the attitude our administration has embraced – a path that empowers people to take control of their lives."
That sounds good, until you hear the proof: Enrollment in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dropped from 15,000 cases at the height of the recession to 9,000 at the end of the fiscal year in June. Six thousand fewer people receive benefits; therefore, Maine is becoming the land of opportunity.
What's changed? The rules.
In 2011, the governor and Legislature capped TANF benefits at 60 months, which is permitted under the 1996 welfare reform act. As a result, 3,000 households have lost services between January and June. (Those are households, not people. Children lose benefits along with their parents.)
There is no evidence that any of those people have moved from welfare to work or have lifted themselves out of poverty; in fact, it seems unlikely that they did find jobs.
So where did these newly liberated-from-the-shackles-of-the-welfare-state end up? At least some of them are applying for assistance from their hometowns through General Assistance. Portland has spent an additional $26,730 on General Assistance since May to families that were formerly getting help through TANF.
"We said from the beginning that it would just cause a cost shift," city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg told the Bangor Daily News. "The need wouldn't go away."
What makes anyone think it would? It's like throwing away your umbrella because you don't want it to rain.
This is just the latest example of the governor choosing to blame poor people for poverty. As if all they need is a little push.
It's hard to know which part of this is more offensive – the notion that they are poor by choice or that helping them holds them back.
That's not true for people on TANF, or for anyone who has been left behind in the recession and its aftermath. The economy is still growing at a crawl, and job gains are steady but miniscule. While the governor was sitting on bonds and refusing federal health care funds that would have stimulated the economy, Maine people were still hurting,
There are far more out-of-work Mainers than there are jobs available. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, there were about 5,000 more jobs in Maine this July over July 2012, But if you count people who have stopped looking for work out of frustration and people who want full-time work but can only find part-time along with those officially unemployed, we are about 100,000 jobs short. That's more than just a lack of desire.
Taking away a family's housing and food does not get them into the workforce. But making sure that everyone has access to health care makes them better equipped to hold a job. And giving everyone a chance to contribute with a high-quality, free public education is probably the best way to make a difference.
Are there some people who take advantage of the public assistance system? Probably, but not many.
In fact, one of the biggest surprises in the governor's radio address is how few people are actually on welfare – at 9,000 TANF families in a state of 1.3 million people – a lot less than 47 percent "takers" that you hear about.
What's hurting Mainers is slow economic growth, stagnant wages and a lack of the dynamism that create new jobs for young people coming into the workforce. They leave the state, and the older people left behind strain government services.
The governor can talk all he wants, but what is he doing about that?
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: